Teams, Gaggles, Flocks and Org Charts–The first rule of the leadership team is…

Just because we lump a bunch of people together at work and call them a “team,” doesn’t make it so. A group, gaggle, bunch, or flock just requires box similarities on an org chart.

Most identified teams, simply put, aren’t.

A couple of decent authors have stated “teams are a group of people that trust each other.” That doesn’t go far enough.

Teams are a group of people that trust each other to do their jobs even when absent. In other words, I know you’ll do what’s best by me, even if I’m not in the room.

Teams aren’t created, they’re formed. Even better, they’re forged.

So, as the leader of this heretofore mislabeled enterprise, how do you know if you are forging this team, as opposed to just creating it? Ah, young Jedi… the perfect question.

There are a few things to look for, both good and not-so-good.


  1. Do team members ask questions/offer opinions (in meetings) on other team members’ responsibilities?
    In other words, are they capable (and willing) to offer their opinion based on non-technical judgment or experience, in areas where they are not a subject-matter-expert?
  2. Do team members disagree (in meetings), and then LISTEN to the responses?
    Can they ask questions of each other without getting a perfunctory “jeeez,” and an eye roll from the owner of the topic?

    Well-intentioned devil’s advocates can sometimes be helpful.

  3. Are most decisions made by team members OUTSIDE of team meetings?
    Meetings should NOT be the place for a ton of brand-new information-sharing. It should be the place for actions and decisions that cannot be made between one or multiple members outside of a boardroom, on discussion items that have already been mostly hashed before the meeting.
  4. Do they regularly engage outside of required operational discussions?
    Are their routine drive-by conversations about kids, football scores and home remodeling (sorry, just can’t let that one go)? Periodic lunches, maybe even a dinner or other mostly social gatherings?

    People are forever trying and tell me that outside interactions are unnecessary for a high-performing team – to that, I say bullshit. It is
  5. Does the team keep team conflicts strictly within the team?
    If I can go to your subordinate and find out what you really think of your teammates, you aren’t doing your job.

    The first rule of the leadership team is that you don’t talk about the leadership team outside of the leadership team. No exceptions, unless you want to say fantastically complimentary things about someone, or perhaps praise the dickens out of the teams executive and leadership coach (Oops! How’d that get in there?).


  1. Do team members disagree silently in meetings, then caucus with the Grand Poobah afterwards?
    A sure sign of a dysfunctional team is the inability to offer contrary opinions, and the need to convince the boss outside the arena where decisions should be made, and actions agreed on.

    This ain’t a political primary – it’s a business and you’re a leader within it. Act like one. Have the guts to offer your opinion, even if not fully developed, where others can hear it and react.

  2. Do team members routinely speak to you about other members’ shortcomings or challenges?
    If the only way you, as team lead or senior-most leader, know that a subordinate is underperforming is for another subordinate to come and tell you… both you and that tattle-tale subordinate are key parts of the problem.

    If a colleague is performing sub-optimally, tell him or her directly. “Use your words,” as many parents tell their kids. Be respectful and direct, and come armed with specific examples. Ask me about our “Difficult and Courageous Conversations” for leaders. It’s a necessary skill.

    Or drop it and don’t mention it at all to anyone. Telling the boss first, however, is not option #3.

  3. Do others in the organization know about specific team conflicts?
    An extension of #2. When disagreements exist – when the consensus (including you) is to make Decision “A,” but you still fundamentally disagree – do you shuttle around your subordinates having “keep this between you and me” conversations with each of them about how yours is the best way?

    Stop that.

  4. Do next-level employees know which team members are “liked” or not by their boss?

    They shouldn’t.

    There is zero reason for someone who works with you or for you to know that you think less of teammate Brian in HR than of Lynn in Operations. The organization is hurt when this occurs, since those subordinates then carry some of that baggage with them, collaborating less, sharing less, and developing unfounded heartburn for someone merely because of their tribe.

    And that is because of you.

    Don’t do that.

There’s not an absolute litmus test for high-performing and high-functioning teams, as much as a continuum. One of the highest performing exec teams I’ve ever worked with continues to “work on” being better as a team. It’s a continuous process, requiring proactive efforts by all.

The team leader sets the tone and basic non-negotiables (CPA — condone, permit, allow). All else is done by the team at large and can’t be delegated.

Other than that – easy-peasy.

Criticism and Feedback: NOT the same thing!

I had a mid-level manager ask me recently, “Is there a difference between giving feedback or giving criticism as a leader? Seems like the same thing to me.”

The differences seems subtle, but in reality they’re pretty damned big. And from a results perspective, the differences are huge.

Huge differences. Most have to do with intent and desired outcome.

Criticism, in its simplest form, is for the giver, not the recipient. To criticize is one of the easiest forms of ego defense, and is generally a display of defensiveness and lack of personal confidence. We criticize most when someone aspires to accomplish what we cannot (or will not), or when their accomplishment could somehow threaten ours.

It’s acting out hurtfully with negative thinking.

Feedback, on the other hand, is principally to help someone grow and improve. To positively change a behavior for the better. In other words, it’s more of what we recommend they do, and less of what they did wrong.

Further, if we include some self-reflection in our feedback — opening ourselves to others — we both grow. Our blind spots will be forever blind without effective feedback from others, and people are more inclined to be open with those who have been similarly open with them.

The Johari Window is a great tool for determining how public or “open” you are to receiving feedback, which is crucial for your feedback to be well received.

The more I increase my “public” or “open” window:

  • The less I am blind.
  • The less I have to worry about keeping things hidden.
  • The more I may discover parts of me that I like, which are hidden.

I can’t reduce my Blind area without help from others (feedback).

If I am to help others, I must learn to give helpful feedback.

It really is that simple.

And Be Brazen, remembering that Grace and Accountability can coexist.

My Cheese has Wheels!!

My Cheese Has Wheels!

Sometimes change is just a little too “in your face.” We need to help people get past — and accept — change. Spencer Johnson’s book is a great metaphor.

And remember — there’s only two types of people who really like change:

  1. The person controlling the change (obviously), and
  2. The person who personally benefits from the change.

All others need to be sold. So sell ’em. And don’t forget…

Be Brazen.

Top 10 Client Lessons from 2019

Another year in the books (or the cloud, or wherever we store history these days). In 2019, we worked with executives in healthcare, technology, contact centers, financial services, higher education and more, and we’ve helped them become better leaders who developed more leaders. Along the way, we had the privilege to help their organizations grow, transform and improve, and in doing so, we saw some noteworthy trends we thought we’d share with you. If any of these sound familiar, learn vicariously from the collective and use this as a catalyst for improvement.

We’re all people first. Relationships before processes. Relationships instead of processes. It’s intuitive that employees do better when change is their idea; we’ve learned that the same thing holds true for the consultant-client relationship. More shut-up, more listen.

Leadership is a contact sport. We’re all busy with a host of really important organizational and administrative tasks, but if you’re in a leadership position, leading is your primary job and not an additional duty. It’s not that idiotic term “soft-skill” if it’s the one you need to do your basic job. You can keep busy staying in your office, but you can’t develop authentic, trusting relationships with those you lead from there. Don’t let busyness become an excuse for half-hearted leadership.  

Even the best need help. Michael Jordan had a coach. Tiger Woods had a coach (back when he was good; now… who knows? ???? ). Tom Brady and LeBron James have coaches. Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai have coaches — even Oprah Winfrey has one. 40% of Fortune 500 CEOs fail within 18 months; 82% of them because of relationships. This isn’t a push for our executive coaching services; it’s a reminder (from our clients) that even those we consider superstars “need someone.” They need help to grow, develop, and continue their superstar status. Leading at the top is hard stuff, and having someone to advise and counsel — and just listen sometimes — is crucial.

Leadership development isn’t an event; it’s a process. If your leadership development program is solely an HR-led, one-and-done training seminar, you’re doing it wrong. It’s just not effective. Top leadership support for development is essential, and only individuals at the highest organizational levels can create a climate that encourages a continuous learning environment.

Often, you have to choose sides. Leadership—and consulting—has risks. In this profession, too many try to be all things to all people, tripping over non-committal PC verbiage. We must stop. Sometimes we have to tell the CEO that the SVP of Operations has the better plan to consider. It’s what’s best for the client that must always drive our actions, advice and counsel.

We can do two things at once. No, no one is advocating individual multi-tasking, but organizational multi-tasking is a must. We simply cannot focus on just one strategy, direction or objective. We must have the leadership bandwidth to move multiple objectives forward while still dealing with the occasional organizational fire.

Process cannot overcome culture. There is no single 12-page Guide to Leadership; if there were, I’d have written it, become a kazillionaire with my own island and you wouldn’t be invited. If an outfit’s culture is not conducive to, say, empowered decision-making, then for Pete’s sake don’t allow some outside consultant to teach or coach on empowerment or high-level delegation. Work on the culture first, then use leadership “pull” instead of consultant “push” to marshal through necessary objectives and behavior changes.

Talk’s cheap; meaningful conversations are priceless. Most senior leadership teams declare themselves to be great communicators… and they’re usually not. Not with each other or their employees. Think about the conversations you have around the conference room table. Are they about hard things, or are they guarded to ensure everyone “gets along?” Trust is never built hiding behind the thin veneer of playing nice; it requires authentic and meaningful conversations. Collaboration and deference look a lot alike. They aren’t.

Don’t stop doing what works. We saw this so many times in 2019 that we felt compelled to remind you. If you’ve changed a process (or put a new one into place) to correct a problem, don’t quit following it when the problem goes away. That’s like stopping your blood pressure medicine because your blood pressure isn’t high anymore. It’s hard enough to implement a new process and get it to stick; having to do it twice is self-induced suffering.

Check your ego at the door. When leaders let their ego influence decisions, they become deaf to the messages their behavior conveys, and blind to how others perceive those messages. Ego is the major culprit behind leaders who won’t admit they might have been wrong or refuse to show vulnerability. When the little green monster keeps us from making good objective decisions, we lose trust not only from those affected but also from those who watched – and don’t even think no one was watching.  

I can only imagine what I’ll learn from my clients in 2020.

Be Brazen.

Weaknesses aren’t Kryptonite, they just aren’t strengths…

Not too long ago, I worked with a group of executives for a fast-growing client.

Two things struck me as interesting, and somewhat of a paradox: First, they were all reasonably successful in their jobs (and their jobs were substantially the same, just different geographic regions). Second, they were all incredibly different. Yes, they each had similar core characteristics, such as intelligence and work ethic. In other areas, such as sales, marketing, people management, organizational skills, strategy, planning, and so forth, they were all over the charts.

So what? Well, I’ll tell you “so what.” You hear a lot about understanding your “strengths and weaknesses,” then you’re supposed to work on your weaknesses, right?? Sort of like the big Superdude combating kryptonite, right??


Let’s look at it differently. Let’s assume that succeeding in a position can be done in any of several different ways, using a variety of skills. With that reasoning, you don’t have strengths and weaknesses; you have learned skills and skills you have yet to learn.


So, then, we should then simply “learn more skills,” right??

No, no, no…

We should, instead, clearly identify our skills, since we know that we can succeed with them, and work on improving our strengths! That’s right, improve our strengths, since we already know that they work for us. Learning new skills is time consuming, and depending on application, may or may not work for us the way they work for others.

Now, this logic assumes current success, so don’t confuse this with those managers who are clearly unsuccessful, though I would argue this could help them with their improvement also. In other words, as Bum Phillips (retired Houston Oilers coach) would say, “Dance with who brung you.”

Use the skills you have — improve and hone them to a razor’s edge — and continue your increasing levels of success. Over time, identify some additional skills you would like to pick up, and develop a plan to learn them in a reasonable time and fashion.

But don’t break what works…

Be Brazen.

Needing Leaders… The “make” or “buy” decision…

So, do you grow your own leaders from within, or hire someone new with – presumably – the leadership skills you need are unable to find inside your organization?  What do you tell yourself to justify not developing those skills from within your organization?  How about these?  See if any sound familiar…

“I don’t have anyone ready to ‘step-up.’”

“Leadership development is expensive.”

“If I train them, they’ll just leave and join the competition.”

Please.  I’ve heard them all, and many more just like these.  Some are urban myths, some are akin to the business version of “old wives’ tales.”  All are dumb.  Worse, however, is that some are actually damaging to your organization.

For example:

I don’t have anyone ready to step up.  Really??  You have no one on your staff, or available to you, who with proper development, coaching, and mentoring could step into a more responsible role?

My first comment is “not likely.”  If you really believe that, though, here’s some free advice: Whack ’em all and start over.  Simple statistical odds are that some should be ready or capable of becoming ready; if not, our hiring process is so remiss that blowing it up and starting over may be the only option.

It costs too much.  Again with the “really??”  How much does it cost, in revenue, earnings, and your time, to re-tell, re-advise, re-answer, and re-work?  How about the conflicts that apparently only you can resolve? Aren’t you tired of having to make every decision yourself?

What sort of productivity gains are you missing by not having competent and skilled managers and supervisors at all levels of the leadership food chain?

If I train them, they’ll just leave.  So then, your choices seem to be either train someone who may eventually leave, or keeping that person without the necessary, relevant knowledge.  You’re not seriously weighing this, are you?

Why “grow our own” leaders?  In my mind, there are three simple reasons:

  1. It ensures continuity.  Someone who has seen, experienced and “lived” the functional day-to-day may better understand what issues and challenges are significant.  Yes, sometimes we need an outsider to provide some new-blood thinking, but not at the expense of continuity and corporate memory.
  2. It sends a positive message. Advancement opportunities are a big reason that good people stay – including you.  Promoting a deserving candidate trumps and external hire 24×7 in that regard.
  3. They already know, understand, and more importantly fit our culture. Let’s face it —  though valuable, skills are a dime a dozen on the open market.  They just aren’t that difficult to find (including mine and yours).  What’s difficult is finding those skills wrapped up in someone intelligent enough to learn our jobs, and who also fits our current culture.

Except in very unique circumstances, developing current staff to assume future leadership roles always, always, benefits the organization in big ways.  Many of you reading this have been promoted into your roles, so you clearly understand the value.  We can – we really can – teach and develop the skills necessary to “grow your own,” so keep that in mind before thinking there’s “greener grass” in a newly hired manager…